Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas Eve Sausage, Basil and Cheese Lasagna

When I was a small child, I remember our Christmas Eve meals being quite the extravaganza. Lots of people, lots of food. My grandmother was from Italy, and one thing she always made on Christmas Eve was eels. Yes, eels. She was from Nola, outside of Naples, and eels are apparently a Neapolitan Christmas Eve tradition. Read this abstract from a 1935 issue of the New Yorker if you don't believe me. That image of the housewives keeping the eels in the bathtub until the moment of the feast -- well, I am going to remember that the next time I catch myself complaining about the laundry. As you could well imagine, you wouldn't catch me going near eels with a 10 foot pole when I was a kid (or now, for that matter. I just can't get behind their . . . eelyness). I love nearly everything about my Italian heritage except the eels, in fact. As the years went on and my grandmother got older, the feast became a little more streamlined, and eventually, eels dropped off the menu. Because when you decide that it's time to simplify, the eels are always the first thing to go. But thankfully, one thing that remained on our Christmas Eve menu, year in and year out, was lasagna. Oh, there was probably a roast as well, and some kind of fish, but for me, if lasagna was on the menu, lasagna was all that mattered.

Now that I have my own little family and we have started some of our own holiday traditions, I've started making lasagna for Christmas Eve. We keep it simple: lasagna, bread and salad. To me, it's the perfect Christmas Eve meal. It can be made entirely ahead of time (and even made well ahead and frozen -- this freezes well). It can feed a crowd; just make as many pans as you need. It leaves me time to do the things I really want to do on Christmas Eve -- go to church, drive around looking for the most over-the-top light displays, play with the kids, set the cookies out for Santa, run to Target at 11 p.m. because the main structural component of the the %$@&#!* wooden play kitchen that we bought months ago is completely broken in half, which we didn't realize until we opened the box on Christmas Eve. You know, the stuff that memories are made of.

I found this lasagna recipe years ago on Epicurious. I don't know what caused me to pick this one out from the hundreds of other lasagna recipes online -- I think it might have been a reader review that said something like "My father hates lasagna and he ate this cold the next day!!" For some reason, that has the same psychic effect on me as "he lifted the train with his bare hands!" -- I'm always persuaded to try something when I hear about someone who hates a particular food eating it cold the next day. Maybe because I am generally not a huge leftover person to begin with. Anyway, whatever the reason that I decided to try this recipe, I've never looked back. I have never made this lasagna and not gotten rave reviews and numerous requests for the recipe. I don't save it just for Christmas Eve; I probably make this 3 or 4 times a year. If you have a baby or break your leg, expect to get a pan of this lasagna from me. I'm a one trick pony that way. I always at least double the recipe. I figure if I am making lasagna, I'm going to MAKE LASAGNA, dammit. And I always try to keep a pan in the freezer for my birthin' and limb breaking friends.

The sauce is easy, and I always double it, even if I'm just making one pan. When I do that, I'll sometimes use one pound of sausage and one pound of lean ground beef instead of two pounds of sausage. I've used turkey sausage before, and I can tell the difference because I am the world's foremost expert on this particular lasagna recipe, but I don't think anybody else can. It's still good even with turkey sausage. When I double it, I won't always completely double the onion amount or even the meat amount. But I definitely double the tomato amount -- you don't want to run short on sauce. Sometimes I'll even throw in an extra can of diced tomatoes. You can't really mess this up as long as you stay in the sausage/beef/onion/tomato family.

I think the filling, particularly the fresh basil, is the key to this lasagna's fabulousness. The basil just adds such a nice freshness to the lasagna. The cheeses in the filling are pretty standard lasagna cheeses -- ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan, but they combine perfectly together, and with the basil, to create one fine lasagna fillng.

I can't seem to make this without trashing my kitchen, but it's totally worth it.

Before I post the long (but don't be intimidated -- even I can do it!) lasagna recipe, I wanted to thank my good bloggy friend Pamela over at Cookies With Boys for passing this award on to me:

Thanks, Pamela! I want to share this with a few of my favorite blogs:

MacDuff of Lonely Sidecar -- I only recently discovered MacDuff's blog, and I felt like I hit a gold mine when I did. She's wickedly funny and multi-talented -- a competitive sailor, among other things. Her scathing indictment of John Mayer was passionate, moving, and brilliant -- I laughed, I cried, I begged for an encore. [Jen A. -- are you reading out there? This man is not baby daddy material. Move on, sister!]

Kim of Scrumptious Photography -- Kim's blog name might just be the understatement of the year. Her photographs stand out even in a community filled with brilliant photographers. I go there to see what my TWD creations should look like.

The Blonde Duck -- where else can you find kitchen fairies, world class ballerinas, fuzzy duck Christmas ornaments with confidence issues, and beef burgundy all at the same place? There is one seriously creative mind at work here, folks.

Melissa of Love at First Bite -- I don't think that Melissa has ever posted a recipe that didn't make me want to stop what I'm doing and go cook immediately. Love this blog!

And my fellow UVA Wahoo and good bloggy friend Nancy from The Dogs Eat the Crumbs passed on this fun little number to me:

Thanks Nancy! I want to share this one with my new bloggy friend, A Singleton in the Kitchen, for her delicious chocolate crackle cookies. And for the fact that when struck with an intense chocolate craving, Singleton whipped up some of this fabulous dough to munch on -- even though she was insanely busy -- rather than just tearing through the pantry looking for chocolate chips like I would do in her shoes. Singleton shows me that you CAN be a true chocoholic without abandoning your standards.

Here is the lasagna recipe. I hope that everyone has a great weekend!

Sausage, Basil and Cheese Lasagna, from Bon Appetit, February 2000

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound spicy Italian sausages, casings removed
1 cup chopped onion
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with added puree
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes with green pepper and onion (do not drain)

1 1/2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 15-ounce container plus 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups (packed) grated mozzarella cheese (about 6 ounces)
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

12 no-boil lasagna noodles from one 8-ounce package
3 cups (packed) grated mozzarella cheese (about 12 ounces)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 ounces)
Nonstick olive oil spray

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add sausages, onion, garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper and sauté until sausage is cooked through, mashing sausage into small pieces with back of fork, about 10 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and diced tomatoes with juices. Bring sauce to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes to blend flavors. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill until cold, then cover and keep chilled.)

Using on/off turns, chop fresh basil leaves finely in processor. Add ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, egg, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Using on/off turns, process filling until just blended and texture is still chunky.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Spread 1 1/4 cups sauce in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Arrange 3 noodles on sauce. Drop 1 1/2 cups filling over noodles, then spread evenly to cover. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layering of sauce, noodles, filling and cheeses 2 more times. Top with remaining 3 noodles. Spoon remaining sauce atop noodles. Sprinkle with remaining cheeses. Spray large piece of foil with nonstick olive oil spray. Cover lasagna with foil, sprayed side down.

Bake lasagna 40 minutes. Carefully uncover. Increase oven temperature to 400°F. Bake until noodles are tender, sauce bubbles thickly and edges of lasagna are golden and puffed, about 20 minutes. Transfer to work surface; let stand 15 minutes before serving.


Megan said...

Holy cannoli! I have that exact same recipe in my binder, and dang it, I've never made it. Why? Beats me. I was just thinking that maybe I'll make a lasagna for our Christmas party this year. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

Melissa said...

What an honor and a surprise! Thank you so much for the award!

And I'm adding this lasagna recipe to my list of must-try recipes. Have a great weekend, Cathy!

n.o.e said...

Oooh, Cathy, this sounds good! Last year I got in a kick where I served lasagna for dinner parties - a pork/sausage tomato one from the Hay Day cookbook and a green and white spinach lasagna. I agree that a salad and bread complete the menu (no eels necessary, thank you). And that make one to give away is such a great practice, especially with a recipe like this that really is a labor of love. I'm going to try this one for my next pan of lasagna.

MacDuff said...

Thank you SO MUCH, both for the award, and for posting this recipe. I was just sitting here this morning thinking about Christmas Eve.

And if you ever feel like putting the final nail in the coffin for eels, read "The Tin Drum" by Gunter Grass. There's this scene...oh my god. I barfed after reading it. You will never eat eels again.

On that note...

Thank you again! Your blog is fabulous.

singletoncooks said...

Eeeeek! Thank you so much!! I am a chocoholic at heart and plain chocolate chips are great for serious craving occasions when nothing else will do (such as hiking, when people bring that trail mix that has the chips in it, I have been known to get in serious trouble for hogging the chips and leaving the nuts and raisins behind!) but given the chance I will take unbaked chocolate cookie dough (or brownie dough) every time! The cookies were great too! Anyway, I love your blog and thank you so much for the award!
Umm, eels, I'm not sure what to say except that my brother ordered them in Venice one time and he likes everything but he said that the eels weren't that great. Maybe they're an acquired taste? The lasagna looks fantastic!

Audrey said...

this has been in my binder of recipes to try for a while so I appreciate the endorsement (and lack of eels). I'm so looking forward to cooking again (and comforting hot saucy food at that). Um, but I'm sure you just forgot to say you also always send a pan over to blogging friends who are in the middle of moving... :)

Heather said...

that is a lovely tradition. italian on holidays feels so homey, i think. and yep, i'm an attorney :) you mean non-attorneys don't use the word tortfeasor?!

Cathy said...

Megan -- it's already in your binder?!? Give that baby a test drive -- you'll love it!

Melissa -- You're welcome! You've given me so many great recipes; I'm glad that I can share one once in a while, and I hope that you like it!

Singleton -- I eat the chocolate chips out of trail mix too. What are we going to do with us?

Nancy -- that green and white spinach lasagna from Hay Day sounds great! I love a good veggie lasagna! And I'm glad it works sans eel.

MacDuff -- we have The Tin Drum around here somewhere. David's read it. I've been pretty much limited to Goodnight Moon and the Pottery Barn catalog for the past 6.5 years, but I see a light at the end of the tunnel. If it has a wretch-inducing eel scene, I'm so there.

Audrey -- a cross country move sounds more painful to me than either childbirth or bone breaking. If I could send a pan to you, you know I would!

Heather -- you know, "tortefeasor" is actually one of the milder of the lame law puns that I enjoy. In my practice group, we think "cram down" puns are a scream. I thank God every day that I am so easily amused.

n.o.e said...

Oh, the green and white lasagna is from somewhere on the internet (I didn't make very good notes, but the lasagna is wonderful. I think I may have gotten it from, and altered it somewhat. Here's the cite -
Mine has sauteed wild mushrooms instead of black olives, and some nutmeg, cayenne, and white pepper) The one I make from Hay Day is a pork/sausage/tomato one. But I may have a new "red" lasagna once I try yours - I love the sound of the basil in it.

My husband and I have a long-standing joke about being "easily amused" - so long-standing that we've forgotten the joke but we're still amused by saying "easily amused". So I was, of course, amused when you said it. Being easily amused is a gift (I think).

And it's amusing also that your husband put "cartography" as one of his interests on his yearbook page. As opposed to, say, "drinking beer" or "shooting hoops" (but maybe he said those also?) He sounds like an interesting guy.

Lisa magicsprinkles said...

Woh. Eeeeeels? I only like mine in sushi because they're covered with that yummy sweet sticky sauce. And they're cooked. Your lasagna looks and sounds amazing - maybe I should put it in my binder for a while too.

Prudy said...

I remember this one in Bon Appetit, and sadly I did not make it. I'll remedy that soon! I feel like the father who wanted it cold for breakfast. I love Italian food around Christmas, especially since the colors are so Christmasy.

Maria said...

Oh lasagna, what a comforting and delicious dish!! Looks everything else on your blog!!

Anne said...

Ok... the eels are just too much! And the bathtub image! I like the lasagna tradition and that recipe looks wonderful!

The Blonde Duck said...

I'm going to make that lasagna! If your children will eat it, my husband will! Thank you so much for the kind award. I appreciate you thinking of me! I'm still amazed you like my stories--I'm just waiting for someone to haul me off with the other crazy folks!

Mary Ann said...

You have got to be kidding me about the eels- please? That is just too much for me. I am an adventurous eater, but wow. Lasagna is a great dish and even better when you find a recipe that you make over and over again. This looks great. My birthday is on Christmas eve, so I am thinking this would be a great Christmas dinner- we never do anything too fancy!
Thanks for sharing a favorite!

Pamela said...

YUCK on the eels!! Another great post, Cathy! You make blog reading so much fun! :o)

inland empire restaurant and food reviews said...

This lasagna looks so good!!!

Lisa said...

Great recipe! We always have lasagna around Christmastime too.

kim said...

Thanks so much for the award, Cathy!! That is so sweet of you to say :) The lasagna looks so yum. I've never attempted it before, but I'll have to give this recipe a try once I get up the courage :)

Anonymous said...

My mother talks about having eels at Christmas as a child. She said my grandmother would cook them and the leftovers would go in the fridge and basically became raw all over again. Used to freak her out!
The lasagna - wow - I am gonna have to try it out! Thanks for sharing!

Bridgett said...

Excuse my while my mouth is hanging open... that lasagna looks like perfection.

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